When Your Best Friend Is a TV Character

Friendship in a mass-entertainment world.

big number 1 in handwritten style marker font
big number 1 in handwritten style marker font

Around the time I was eleven years old, my voice dropped an octave. Being a female-bodied human, this was a surprise to some because I was in the soprano section of choir at one point.

I can’t help but think I intentionally changed my voice. You see, around middle-school age, I was obsessed with Teen Titans. And Raven was my girlcrush. Cool, mysterious, and powerful, I wanted so badly to be like Raven. So, I intentionally lowered my voice to sound more like her.

Teen Titans was one of the first shows I fangirled over. It occupied a lucrative slot in the TV schedule: 4:00 PM Monday to Friday on YTV (Canada’s premier kids’ channel). I’d come home from school in the afternoon, eat my after-school-snack of fruit-bottom yogurt, kick back, and hang out with Raven, Robin, Beast Boy, Starfire, and Cyborg for half an hour.

The Titans was an ensemble cast of quirky characters with superpowers who, despite being minors, lived together on their own in a giant T. They represented a youthful idealism and things many teenagers with few rights have — independence, power, respect, and, of course, friendship. I wanted to be a Titan. Or, at the very least, find my own team of Titans.

big number 2 in handwritten style marker font
big number 2 in handwritten style marker font

It’s the last day before the winter holidays are over. Everyone’s excited about 2021. I haven’t talked to my friends in a while, I should set up a date. I open Facebook Messenger. Click the write-a-new-message icon. The cursor in the “To:” space blinks back, teasing.

When was the last time I talked to my friends? I don’t know, I don’t see them regularly. In high school, we saw each other every day. Said hi to each other in the halls, made fun of our teachers during lunch, and complained about schoolwork on the walk home. Then, when we’d finish all our homework, we’d log on to MSN Messenger and talk some more.

I wanted to be a Titan. Or, at the very least, find my own team of Titans.

At lunchtime, we sat in groups with our favourite people. Snide adults may have called these groups “cliques,” but they were looser and less malicious than what that word connotes. People formed sub-cliques or moved between cliques — I myself didn’t settle into a semi-permanent group until around Grade 10. I like to think that we were forming our own ensemble casts. Bonding over similar pop culture interests and senses of humour, we became self-tailored sitcoms.

Several of my friends and I ended up in the same university. We didn’t see each other every day because we all studied different subjects, but at least in first year, some of our classes overlapped. And there was always lunchtime at the student union building.

But people’s identities also go through a shift in their late teens and early twenties. I wanted something more than the same group of friends since high school. Broaden my horizons, diversify my contacts, and dip into other sitcoms. So, I joined clubs and exchanged numbers. I formed alternative ensembles, but they were relatively short-lived.

I like to think that we were forming our own ensemble casts. Bonding over similar pop culture interests and senses of humour, we became self-tailored sitcoms.

Honestly, it all started in university. You’d make a friend in one class and swear you’ll be lifelong buddies, only to have them disappear next semester. As of writing this piece, I have 766 friends on Facebook, the vast majority of whom I met face-to-face in some capacity. But I don’t know them.

After university came work and some semblance of high school — that is, pool random people into a space, give them a common goal, and hope they get along. Magically, some do. I’ve been lucky enough to have met friends at workplaces. I even went backpacking with one. In my last nine-to-five, I developed such a good rapport with a handful of people that another person sharing our office space called us a sitcom in the making.

But work is not the same as high school. There’s still a barrier, a boundary. People don’t like mixing work and personal life. Like in Brooklyn Nine-Nine when Jake offers to take care of Sergeant Terry after his surgery and Terry thinks he’s overstepping:

Terry: I told you, Jake. We’re not that kind of friends.

Jake: Not what kind of friends?

Terry: “Friend” friends. You and I are work friends. (*walks away*)

Jake: Not good enough. Prepare to be physically overpowered by a “friend” friend!!!!! (*proceeds to totally fail at tackling Terry because the Sergeant is a tank*)

I close out of Facebook. I’ll talk to my friends tomorrow.

big number 3 in handwritten style marker font
big number 3 in handwritten style marker font

A few days ago, someone posted on r/AskReddit the question, “What is extremely rare but people think [is] very common?” One answer (by big_red_16 with 4.7k upvotes) would serve as an inspiration for this essay:

Having a super tight knit group of friends that spend all their spare time together like in sitcoms

These days, the only two people I regularly see in my spare time are my mom and dad because I’ve bubbled with them.

I love my mom and dad, but they’re not my friends. In another life, maybe. But family is different from friends. Family isn’t chosen, and while we have overlapping interests like movies and music that we can all discuss over the dinner table, the dynamic isn’t the same. I will always be my parents’ daughter. They will always be their daughter’s parents.

big number 4 in handwritten marker style font
big number 4 in handwritten marker style font

Now that I mostly freelance, I crave sitcoms to be a part of.

Last summer, I re-watched some Friends episodes. Then I watched them again. And again. Soon, I just left episodes on repeat in the background while I did other stuff.

This habit of mine started when I first moved out in 2018. I live alone, and while I’m an extreme introvert who loves being alone 99% of the time, the silence does get deafening. So, I leave Netflix running in the background while I cook, clean, and play video games. I don’t think I’m lonely, I just like a subtle reminder that other people exist.

That’s why I love coffee shops. They let you socialize without, you know, socializing… You’re not obligated to talk to anyone (except the barista), but the option is always there. You’re alone in the privacy of your own table with your laptop, but you’re not really alone. People are alone next to you, around you, their conversations flitting around over your head. Reminding you that they exist.

Sadly, I’m a germaphobe and I haven’t stepped into a coffee shop in more than a year. My only coffee shop these days is background Netflix.

big number 5 in handwritten marker style font
big number 5 in handwritten marker style font

When I first discovered prestige TV, I almost never re-watched shows. Lately, however, I’ve grown accustomed to watching the same shows over and over again. It’s gotten to a point where I can talk along with the characters; I’ve memorized the lines of shows not from meticulous studying but from osmosis.

When I consulted The Google, I found a plethora of articles attempting to explain why we tend to re-watch and re-read the same movies, TV shows, and books over and over again. Two people (Russell and Levy) even wrote a study on it, titled, “The Temporal and Focal Dynamics of Volitional Reconsumption: A Phenomenological Investigation of Repeated Hedonic Experiences.” The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson summarized the paper’s conclusions into the following reasons, paraphrased here:

1. People re-experience things when they simply think it’s really, really good.

2. People re-experience things because they have a nostalgic connection to it.

3. People re-experience things because the experience has a therapeutic effect on them.

4. People re-experience things for “existential” reasons, which is a little more nebulous and unique to the individual. (Thompson recounts re-listening to an old track and remembering his freshman college days to explain this.)

I also think we re-watch shows because we’re lazy. Maybe I’ve just gotten older, but over the years, I’ve found it harder and harder to keep track of new characters and new plotlines, my brain saturated with the old stuff. Kate Galyon, a diehard Office fan, tells The Wall Street Journal, “I have connected with those characters. It’s tedious to try doing that again . . . Why would I waste my time when I could watch a show that I know that I love?”

But more than stress relief, more than nostalgia, I think I know why we watch our favourite characters over and over, again and again. It’s because they’ve become our friends.

big number 6 in handwritten marker style font
big number 6 in handwritten marker style font

The cool thing about TV series is you get to know a character really well. You also get to know their dynamics and relationships with the other people in that black box. Then, you get to know things about a character that other characters don’t know. You know a character’s secret and you really feel like you have an intimate connection with them.

What I also love about TV shows is that with ensemble casts, you get to know everyone over time and they start to feel like family. I can think of numerous TV families that have given me a sense of belonging over the years:

  • The aforementioned Titans (Robin, Raven, Starfire, Beast Boy, and Cyborg) in Teen Titans
  • The Scoobies (Buffy, Willow, Xander, Anya, and Mr. Giles) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • The Friends (Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Joey, and Phoebe) in Friends
  • The 99th Precinct (Jake, Amy, Rosa, Terry, Charles, Gina, Hitchcock and Scully, and Captain Holt) in Brooklyn Nine-Nine
  • The International Secret Intelligence Service (Archer, Lana, Cyril, Pam, Cheryl/Carol, Dr. Krieger, and Mallory) in Archer

I can think of more, but these friends have kept me in consistent company during the pandemic.

big number 7 in handwritten marker style font
big number 7 in handwritten marker style font

Melissa Boles (a fellow finalist for the 2020 Inspired Writer’s personal essay contest) puts it beautifully:

I watch certain tv shows and movies over and over because the people in them who love each other also want each other and are enough for each other and all I’ve ever wanted is to be enough.

In the past few weeks, I’ve latched onto the theory that when we get to a certain age, we get the instinctive urge to create our own family.

This explains my psyche. I lived at home during my undergraduate years, but towards its end I became restless. It’s not that I live in a toxic home or hate my parents, but when you live with your elders, you’ll never be the “head” of the household. You’ll always be living under someone else’s roof, someone else’s rules. I wanted to “head” my own family, so I moved out as soon as I could.

But more than stress relief, more than nostalgia, I think I know why we watch our favourite characters over and over, again and again. It’s because they’ve become our friends.

So, technically, I’m the head of my own household now, population 1. At some point, I want to expand. Now, I’ve never been into marriage or children, so I don’t want to get married and have kids, but I do want a cat and a dog. I also want to get into gardening and grow something from scratch, nurture it to life.

I also want to live with a bunch of my friends. One of my best friends, whom I call my Brother (we’ve grown up with each other since Grade 6), dream about buying a big house and living in it with a bunch of our friends. Our dream is to have a “house car,” a “house dog,” and a “house cat.” As to the question of people having significant others, we figure that if they’re cool enough, they can live with us too.

I have this fantasy of us sitting around the living room at the end of the day, shooting the shit. We’ll vent about our jobs, gossip about our partners, and fight about what show to watch together or what board game to play next. Over time, we’ll have less and less to talk about, but that’s okay. We’ll just sit together on the couch in silence, enjoying each other’s company. We’ll be our own sitcom.

‘fin’ in handwritten marker style font
‘fin’ in handwritten marker style font

Li Charmaine Anne (she/they) is a Canadian author and freelance writer on unceded Coast Salish territories (aka Vancouver, Canada). Her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines and she is at work on her first novel, a contemporary YA about queer Asian skater girls. To read Charmaine’s articles for free (no subscription required), sign up for her newsletter.

(She/They) Author on unceded Coast Salish territories (Vancouver, Canada). At work on first novel. Get links to read my stuff for free: https://bit.ly/2MleRqJ

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